God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence: A False Dichotomy

The terms “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence” mask the fact that at least two distinct theoretical issues separate most translations:

1. what counts as “the same” in translation; and

2. how much text should be translated at a time.

Even though the two issues are not the same, they are related, and we find the following two general patterns:

By and large, “formal equivalence” translators work on the assumptions that: (1) “The same” means “the same meaning;” and (2) the realm of translation is the word. Accordingly, formal-equivalence translators try to find English words that mean the same thing as the original Hebrew or Greek ones.

“Dynamic equivalence” translators assume that: (1) “The same” means “the same affect;” and (2) the realm of translation is the phrase. So they try to find English phrases that produce the same affect as the original Hebrew or Greek.

For example, the Hebrew word ner meant “oil lamp” when the Bible was written. (We know it didn’t mean wax candle or electric lamp because they hadn’t been invented yet.) The formal equivalent of ner might therefore be “oil lamp,” while the dynamic equivalent might be “candle” or just “lamp.”

Similarly, the Hebrew words tarum karno (Psalm 89:24 and, in reverse order, Psalm 112:9) mean “will be high” and “his horn,” respectively. A word-for-word translation might be “his horn will be exalted” while a phrase-for-phrase translation might be “he will be triumphant.”

I think we would do well to stop using “dynamic equivalence” as the opposite of both “formal equivalence” and “word for word.”

October 5, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. Years ago Nida and friends stopped using “dynamic equivalence” and changed to “functional equivalence”, which is perhaps more like (1) “The same” means “the same meaning;” and (2) the realm of translation is the phrase. In other words it gets away from the word for word principle without abandoning real equivalence in meaning. Is that what you are looking for.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 5, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes. And “word for word” became “essentially literal.”

      I think the point of using “functional” instead of “dynamic” was to emphasize that the translation should have the same function as the original. The term itself doesn’t directly address the issue of word-for-word vs. phrase-for-phrase, but Nida’s philosophy on the matter is clear.

      In general, I think we should pay less attention to the literal meaning of the descriptive phrases and more attention to the philosophies they represent.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 5, 2009 | Reply

  2. In regard to “dynamic” and “functional” equivalence, the topic is treated at some length in Unger 2006/7. I just finished reading part 1 of Genre, Relevance and Global Coherence: The Pragmatics of Discourse Type Christoph Unger, 12.2006.

    Unger devotes at least one half of his monograph to pointing out the deficiencies in previous frameworks. Not sure I willing to put up with much more of that. The difficulty of “processing” his critique isn’t offset by the potential “rewards”.

    Not sure why I am reading this, I think I was browsing something written by E.A. Gutt and found the title which looked intriguing.

    Comment by c. stirling bartholomew | October 6, 2009 | Reply

  3. Joel, You simply and helpfully describe the issues here!

    I think “what counts as ‘the same'” is a general problem of philosophy (epistemology) that dates back to Aristotle’s pigeonholing logic, and to Plato’s ideal-seeking dialectic. But of course it goes back further to the famous problem of Heraclitus. Linguist Kenneth L. Pike would talk about “talked-about reality,” noting that “the same” even for empirical scientists had incredible (“radically relative”) variation. Astrophysicists would and do, for example, say that this “same” thing that they talk about as “light” is a “particle” or / and is a “wave” and / or is a relative “field.”

    Now you and Peter and Nida are doing this. “Dynamic” is the “same” as “functional.” They’re the same because you can and do talk about them as the same. And they’re also very very very different (as you some point out).

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 6, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] is largely a familiar one: which is better, formal or dynamic equivalence? As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think that’s a useful way to frame a discussion about Bible […]

    Pingback by More on Bible Gateway’s new “Pespectives in Translation” Blog « God Didn't Say That | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  5. If formal equivalence is based primarily upon the same meaning on a word-for-word basis, and dynamic equivalence is based upon the same meaning through phrases rather than each word, then dynamic equivalence is plainly superior. Languages don’t generally translate on a word-for-word basis, even if the words carry exactly the same meaning. The word order, grammar, and the subtle differences between words of two different languages make formal equivalence the second choice between the two. Idiom is particularly problematic for formal equivalence, because the meaning can be utterly lost between two languages.

    However, if we consider “functional equivalence” to be somewhere between formal and dynamic equivalence–weighted slightly in favor of word-for-word whenever possible–then we have a happy medium and a more accurate representation of the original meaning of a text.

    Comment by John McCormick | April 27, 2013 | Reply

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